This is our deep-dived research into the life of Tencent Holdings’ Co-Founder, Pony Ma Hua Teng. This is the story of his beginning and how he grew Tencent Holdings into one of the largest technology companies in China and one of the most feared by its competitors.

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START:

Growing Up

Pony Ma was Born in Hainan 1971 Oct 29th and he spent most of his youngest days there. He then moved to ShenZhen for his secondary school. He does have a sister who is 4 year older. His parents are government officials. Pony has an interest in Science since young and his parents really encouraged that, buying scientist magazine for him and even buying equipment that he needed.

Pony really grew up at the perfect timing when China is opening up and all that started from ShenZhen

By 1986, he was an astronomy loving student. At 14-year old, he wanted to buy a telescope which cost about RMB700. That was about 4 month salary of his father. His parent refused naturally. But he wrote in his diary that his dad has killed his ambition of being a great scientist in the future.

His mum saw that and after much discussion with the father, they ended up getting him that telescope anyway.

You can see that he has very supportive parents.   

Pony Ma is very low profile, especially compared to Jack Ma. And not many people know his story, even in China. But today based on his stake in Tencent Holdings, he is worth at least USD45 billion, definitively considered as one of the richest men, and most influential person in the technology space.

So how is this billionaire like? And how did he and his team grew Tencent Holdings to be the massive company it is today. It is so big and successful that even Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg has openly stated they need to learn from Tencent, and has been copying Tencent’s playbook in recent years.

University Years

So as our story continues, in 1989 he entered university. He is one of the first-generation of ShenZhen migrants who earned his Bachelor’s degree in computer science from Shenzhen University, which was a new course at that time

During his university days, he was known as a cheeky hacker. Maybe very similar to Mark Zuckerberg. He loved to write virus, locked up computer within the university lab, so that others cannot use the computer except him. So whenever something like that happen, the school authority will see him as the prime suspect

This was the early 1990’s. At that time, tech companies are just starting to emerge into the scene. The stock market is also just being created in China. By the age of 22 year old, he created his first commercial program. It was a stock analysis program.

He sold some copies and made RMB50,000, a good sum for a 20 year old at that time. It became a showcase of his programming skills when he was applying for jobs in the future.

For example, after graduation he showed this program during his interview process in this company CMMobile (China Motion Telecom Development), was hired the next day.

CMMobile was a communication pager company. His experience there set the basis for his create of communication app like QQ in the future.

Although he went to work for this company, in his heart, he wanted to go into business . He explored many options. At first, he wanted to build PC for customers, similar to how we can go to a vendor to custom build a PC nowadays.

But he soon realised he cannot complete with the vendors who were doing it, many of them were migrants from the countryside, who were not highly educated but have learned the skills and the energy to assemble PC at breakneck speed and for long hours. More importantly, they are willing to work for a lower price. Pony realised he would never be able to compete with them

So he decided to improve on the stock analysis program with his friends. One feature he added was to link live feed of stock prices to the computer interface. He went to HuaQian Bei, the electronic hub in ShenZhen to sell his software.

By the end of 1994, he became fascinated by a new form of communication tool emerging. It was called the 中国惠多网.

It was what we called now as a BBS service – Bulletin Board System.

It is basically a forum, but instead of connecting to the internet and go to a website, you have to connect directly to a server, normally stored in someone’s house. And to connect to it, you have to dial the phone number of that server.

This means that it can only connect one user at time per line; that only one user can be online on the BBS at one time. One person would log on, write his/her comment, then log off. Then another will log on, and join the discussion.

To get more people online, you must have multiple telephone lines. But this is the beginning of the internet in China, people can start connecting with one another all over China. They shared ideas, programs and codes.

PonySoft

By 1995, he started his own station in Shenzhen, calling it Ponysoft. During that time, no more than a dozen station in China and less than a thousand users. But many of the early users are some of the key tech moguls in China today. One of them is Lei Jun, CEO of Xiaomi. Another is Ding Lei from Netease, one of his key competitors, even till this day

But there is one problem, it costs alot to start a station, about RMB 50,000. Pony made the decision to start it anyway. He then built his reputation from there as he invested time and effort into it. He even expanded into multiple lines for his BBS Station.

But around that time, many people are getting interested in the internet as well. Even a school teacher who do not know anything about programming or computer. In May 1995, this teacher called Jack Ma started Chinapages.com with his co-founders. The age of the internet has began in China.

DotCom Bubble

And the internet really took off. One of the first major deal that happened and fuel the dotcom bubble was in 1996. Hotmail was a popular free email client at that time and it was bought out by Microsoft. 

That deal sparked the interest of another young entrepreneur in1995, Ding Lei. Ding Lei was from Zhejiang, working in the city of Ningbo, a city about 3 hour drive from Shanghai today.

Upon seeing the power of email, he decided to move down south to Guangzhou and started Netease, to create the first free email client for China. He then sold the email client licences to enterprise and companies, and that made Ding Lei one of the first internet millionaires in China. In the early days of the internet in China. He was the poster child. He was the Jack Ma of the early days.

Seeing the success of Ding Lei, Pony Ma have the urge to start a business, he couldn’t wait anymore and felt the train will leave without him. So he went to look for his good friend, Zhang Zhi Dong, Tony Zhang and 3 other classmates. Together, they started with RMB 500,000, which is a lot of money at that time.

They ended up naming the company (Teng Xun) 腾讯 

According to the report, the story of how the name came to be is that he wanted the company to be communication based, given his background in the pager industry, so they decided to use the word (Xun).

Teng is not really his first choice, it was actually their third choice. But the story was that they sent Pony Ma’s dad to help register the company, and when he returned he told them that the other two choices were already taken, so he ended up registering the company as 腾讯.

They then settled on the English name of Tencent Holdings. So Tencent was born. And in a way, it was born because Pony Ma got FOMO. He caught the fear of missing out bug during the dot com bubble.

We can take a look at what happened in 1998 that fueled that. By the end of 1998, AOL bought out Netscape in a USD$4.2 billion deal. It marked the beginning of the end for Netscape after Microsoft bundled its IE browser with Windows OS. While people still have to buy Netscape software separately.

Moreover, Yahoo started expanding into China. That started a boom in the portal war in China, as people have been the success of web portal like yahoo.com. So the tech companies in China at that time, Sina.com, Sohu and Netease all went into the portal business.

With portal, the age of internet gaming started as well. If you still remember the age of Yahoo, a big part of Yahoo was Yahoo games, where we can login and play board games or simple games with friends or strangers. That really set the stage for online gaming. And who knew internet gaming will become the most profitable internet services in China today.

Also in 1999, Jack Ma and his team of 17 friends, started Alibaba.com. You can see all the genesis of all the great internet companies during this time.

At the beginning, Tencent was never the one that got the attention. Because they were still struggling to even find a viable product. Tencent’s first product is actually a communication software to allow user to page a pager from the internet. The problem is that Pony assumed that Pager will continue to be a key communication tool and the internet will just be there to assist it

But within a very short period of time, the pager become completely obsolete. So once that is clear, the company fall into the first crisis, they were left without a clear business direction for the company.

During this period, internet communication is starting to boom. One such software that is popular globally is ICQ. ICQ is started by 3 co-founders from Israel. 

Tencent saw the success of ICQ, they do what most Chinese firms are best at doing at that time. They copied, they copied the function of ICQ for the Chinese Market. They named the product, OICQ.

As they started their own version, OICQ as one of the projects within the company. Of course they were not the only one that copied ICQ, but they became the fastest growing. That growth became the next crisis for the company. When it reached 1 million users, the company was running out of money at that time since OICQ is a free to use software, and they have to maintain the servers and the services.

The management discussed and come up with 2 options: they can either sell the company or increase more capital and cut costs. They actually tried the first option first. They tried to sell the company for RMB 3million, they looked around Shenzhen, Beijing and Shanghai to find buyers, but got rejected all over the place. This is because no one really knew how OICQ can make money.

They then tried to increase capital themselves, they also borrow money from friends and family. In return, they tried to give shares to these friends and family but no one wanted the shares. It was that bad. The team also cut their salary to half: from RMB5k to RMB2.5k a month.

During this time, they heard about the concept of Venture Capital, which is still a very new thing in China. But Western VC has already started coming into China in search for the next frontier market.

To explain, So Venture Capital is just fund company, that goes around looking to invest in startup companies. The structure is similar to a mutual fund, but instead of using the capital to invest in companies in the stock market, these fund managers will find new startup or unlisted companies to invest in.

Pony Ma got in contact with one of the first Western VC in China – IDG Capital. They got a meeting and when IDG Capital asked Pony Ma how he plans to make money, he told them the truth, that he does not know. At that time, Tencent don’t even have data about the user using OICQ. In all logic, there is no way the VC can justify investing into Tencent.

However, something happened during that time. In 1998, ICQ was acquired by AOL for USD287 million. So, after meeting with a number of VC and corporate investors, two parties got excited about Tencent with OICQ: IDG and PCCW.

PCCW is the telco started by Li Ka Shing’s 2nd son, Richard Li.

So IDG Cap invest into Tencent with PCCW, valued at USD5.5 million for a 40% stake in the company.

And after they closed the deal on 1st April 2000, the dot-com bubble burst.

Tencent could have gone bankrupt if the dot com bubble burst before they close the deal.

After DotCom Bust
 

They are truly lucky to sneak through that 6-month window of raising money to the dot-com bust. After they raise the money, they are able to hire some new talent. One of them is Ren Yuxin (Mark Ren), the current COO who joined the company from Huawei. He was a key person who brought in the concept of Value-Added services to the OICQ platform. And more importantly, he is one of the key people in developing the gaming division, which ends up being the crown jewel of Tencent.

As they are gaining more traction for their services, they are also attracting more attention in the market. And it caught the attention of ICQ itself. ICQ threatened to sue OICQ for using their name and copyright. After the management meet, they decided not to fight ICQ on it and so they have to do a major renaming / rebranding exercising. During that time, they found out that many of their users are already calling the service QQ for short. So Tencent decided to change the name officially to QQ

So crisis averted, for now. And very soon, the next crisis arises again. As you would know, a USD2 million funding for a tech startup is really not a lot of money. And very soon, Tencent would need more funding again.

BUT due to the dot-com burst, investor IDG and PCCW both were reluctant to continue funding the company. When Pony Ma went back to them for additional funds, both of them were not willing to invest more. They finally agreed to borrow Tencent additional USD2 million based on a convertible bond structure. But they told Tencent to start looking for new investors and buyers. They had enough

So both IDG and Tencent started aggressively to look for a buyer for the business. They approach many of the major tech companies in China. They talked to companies like

Sohu, Netease, Yahoo China and even Lenovo. As usual, they got rejected by everyone.  No one wanted to buy Tencent. At the most desperate moment, the luck of Pony Ma appeared again. 

Enter Naspers

In 2001 Jan, a company named MIH, Myriad International Holdings B.V. found out about Tencent. 

A VP of the company, David Wallerstein, came to visit them. MIH is the subsidiary of a South Africa telecommunication company that is focused on investment, that company is Naspers Limited.

During the meeting, Pony showed them the growth of user base, and that it is growing 500,000 users everyday!

MIH came back with an offer to invest the company valued at USD 60million. Both IDG and PCCW were very happy. IDG almost wanted to sell off all its 20% share to MIH, but one of the managers convinced the management to retain some shares. In the end, IDG sold off 12.8%, keep the rest of the shares. More than 11x its investment from one year ago, that was considered one of their best investments till then. PCCW decided to sell off all its shares in Tencent because it was struggling at that time from the financial crisis.

MIH took over all the shares and invested more into the company, bringing its shareholding to 46.5% in the company. Today, MIH, Naspers is still the largest corporate investor of Tencent, owning about a third of the company. After the deal, David Wallerstien, the VP responsible for the deal, ended up joining Tencent. Today he is the Chief Exploration Officer and a Senior VP.

During that same period, China was seeing a huge boom in handphone adaptation and the use of SMS skyrocketed. Tencent jumped onto the trend by partnering with China Mobile, the telecommunication company of China, to provide QQ to mobile and using SMS to reply QQ messages. This allow Tencent to share the profit coming from these SMS.

From this business, Tencent became one of the first major tech companies in China to breakeven and started showing profits in its business. Although SMS never really took off in other countries, the ultra low price of SMS in China and the development of handphones during that time make SMS a booming business in China. At its peak in 2002, the volume of SMS in China was more than one-third of the entire world.

Tencent then tried many different ways to monetize its services, like advertising, subscription fee and also fee to buy special QQ number. They pushed a bit too far on monetizing and public backslash started. The bad press became louder and louder. And as they pushed out more fees, more competition was coming in and providing free services, in an attempt to take market share from them.

This was a huge mistake for tencent, even after they switched back to the free model, they have to fight off all the competitors over the next few years. Even though some of the monitising strategy turned out wrong, one key feature turned out to be a game changer for Tencent.

The First Cryptocurrency?

In 2002, they started QQ Coin (Q Bi), an internal currency to allow users on QQ to spend money within the platform, like dressing up ur avatar, for games and other subscriptions within QQ.

More importantly, it allowed Peer-to-Peer (p2p) transfer. It was a huge success as credit card was not commonly used in China. People started using it not just for purchase within Tencent services, they also make it into virtual currency for external services. A black market appeared for QQ Coin where u can buy and sell it on e-commerce platforms like Taobao.

You can say QQ Coin form the basis for p2p cryptocurrency. This was one of the first innovation that comes from Tencent. Combined with the QQ Show, (QQ Xiu), the ability to dress up your avatar in your QQ Account, it bring Tencent to a company that people take notice of.

The Growth 

In 2001, Tencent ended the year with a revenue of RMB49m. But in 2002 after the introduction of Qcoin, it’s revenue jumped to RMB 263million and then to RMB 735 million by 2003. And Tencent did that with a net profit margin of more than close to 50%.

Part of that growth came from QQ show and Q Coin, but a big part of it came from its gaming business segment, which was started in early 2003. Pony Ma saw the potential of gaming quite at the beginning. But Tencent was not the first into the gaming world. In fact, it was one of the late comers.

By 2001 companies like Shenda and Netease were already dominating the gaming industry. They either grew through acquisition or by partnering with overseas game studios and bringing in Chinese version of those games into the China market.

Pony Ma feel that the young demographic of QQ users were perfect for going into the gaming industry. However, Tencent has an agreement among its founders during that time. The agreement was that the company would only start a new segment that all the founders agreed upon.So during that time, Pony Ma seems to be the only one interested in gaming. He had a hard time convincing his partners. Only after a while and bringing some of his founders to more gaming conference were they convinced to give the gaming industry a try.

At the same time, they moved into the news portal business, similar to Yahoo, SINA & Sohu.

The website, QQ.com, is still active today and is one of the most popular news portal in China.

Although the traffic is high for QQ, but its advertising business has always been weaker compared to other portals like SINA and Yahoo.

Because QQ is mostly based on younger demographic, which were lesser of value to advertisers. This problem would persist until the company built up WeChat.

It was around that time as well, that the idea of IPO surfaced. Because the IPO fever has returned after the dot-com burst has recovered. The story of how they end up choosing HK as the listing place is quite interesting.

Like all Chinese company, they have considered to list on NASDAQ, like so many of its previous peers have listed there. However, at that time, Tencent was still predominantly a messaging platform with QQ as its core business. Yet there is no real comparable in the US for this type of company. Messenger software like Yahoo Messenger, MSN or ICQ were all just a sub-division of a larger company. And all these messenger software were unprofitable without any real business model. So to the American investors, it might be hard to convince them of a truly unique business model like QQ that was almost non-existent in the US.

And next, to list in mainland China stock exchanges was completely impossible. Due to the dot-com bust, the Chinese regulation has sort of ban all technology IPO during this period in order to protect its large retail investor base.

Thus, the only logical choice left was to list in Hong Kong, where the investors and analysts in Hong Kong would still be able to appreciate and understand the business model of Tencent, which was just based across the straits in Shenzhen.

Pony Ma decided to choose Goldman Sach as the advisor mainly because the MD at that time that was handling their account impressed Pony Ma. The MD, James Mitchell, suggested to Pony that he should not go for the highest possible valuation of the company but rather settle with a reasonable valuation so that the investors who support them at the beginning would have the potential to be rewarded.This gel with the philosophy of Pony Ma himself.

James Mitchell will end up joining Tencent as the Chief Strategy Officer after the IPO, once again showing the ability of Tencent to attract talent from its surrounding.

When it IPO’ed in 2004, it has a market cap of just slightly more than USD 1.0 billion after listing. Tencent is worth USD454 billion today in July 2019. As it is the recovery of the dot-com era, many companies also chose to list during that period and Tencent was not even the “hottest” IPO for that year.

This is because even after IPO, competition was plentiful during this period and the future of Tencent was murky at best. MSN, Yahoo Messenger and Skype all were made available in China. Moreover, all other major tech companies in China have started their own messaging portal as well. SINA, Netease and even Alibaba all operated their own messaging portal. Tencent was just one of hundreds of messaging app during that period.

As these messaging app grew and as the market grew, at first the telecommunication companies like China Mobile was willing to partner with them to provide SMS services to these messaging app. Later on, it moves to allowing these messaging app to send and reply to SMS messages directly.

However, as these messaging software gained market share, they become a threat to the telco underlying SMS Services. And around the end of 2004, China Mobile decided to renegotiate all these partnerships, creating a real crisis for Tencent as it significantly reduced a key revenue stream for them. A few years later, China Mobile actually created their own internal messaging software and forced QQ to integrate into their new messaging software.

However, Tencent decided not to integrate into the China Mobile messaging app, and completely break down the partnership with China Mobile. But it taught Tencent a strong lesson, which is if they do not own the distribution channel directly, they will always be threatened by the one that does.

We have to also note that during that period in 2004-2005, most of the phones in the market are still feature phones. It is not that easy for users to download a new mobile app into their phone. And therefore the mobile strategy for QQ has always been to work with the telco.

However, given the hostile approach of China Mobile, Tencent ended up having to find an alternative for their mobile strategy. So they end up approaching the handphone manufacturers like Nokia and Ericson directly and getting them to sell their phone with QQ mobile software preinstalled.

Expanding Their Mission Statement

At the same period, because of their communication business is struggling, more emphasis is being put into its internet businesses. By 2006, Tencent restructured its business, and has refocused the business to engage users in all aspects of their internet lives.

They acquire a number of internet business, including the very popular Foxmail at that time. Although the acquisition never turned out to be a big money maker, the acquisition brought in the most valuable asset for Tencent yet. Because Foxmail is founded and developed by Alan Zhang Xiaolong.

Zhang Xiaolong would go on to develop a little messaging app known as Weixin, or WeChat in English. That would still be a few more years before WeChat even get started. We will talk more about this story later on.

Microsoft is Coming!

Going back to our story, during 2005, a major threat started appearing for Tencent. Nearing the end of its war with Netscape, Microsoft turned it attention to China. They realised that without a presence in China, its MSN messenger has more than 10% market share in China. More impressively, among business users, it has more than 50% of the market share, beating the dominant QQ in this space.

So Microsoft decided to put in more effort into it, by setting up a local branch office in Shanghai. This alerted Pony Ma and his team because at that time, Microsoft has a full suite of services and could provide users a more complete service from messaging to email (hotmail), video call (Skype), Office, IE and Windows. But Tencent is still predominantly just a messaging app. Who would have thought that the key competitor to Tencent was actually Microsoft. 

So in an attempt to prepare for battle with MSN, Tencent started more aggressively acquiring companies to boost its offering. And having a popular email client is complementary to its messaging platform, QQ.

The threat of MSN was very real but yet in reality, the effort by MSN was rather lackluster. This was because Microsoft ended up facing very similar issue among many MNC coming into China. Instead of treating the China market as an independent entity, it was always being treated like just another subsidiary. This means that all decisions will still need to be made back in Settle HQ. Due to the time and cultural differences, Microsoft was never fast enough to react to what is going on in the battle with QQ. So, bureaucracy ended up killing the threat of MSN in China.

But the good thing that happened for Tencent from the battle with Microsoft was as it became clear that Microsoft was losing its battle with QQ, many of the top management in Microsoft China went to work for Tencent! It got another influx of great talent.

During that time, many Chinese local firms were also battling with their US tech competitor. For example, Taobao was fighting Ebay and Baidu was fighting with Google.

But just as one battle was coming to a conclusion, a new stage of battle has just begun. As blogging enter into the Chinese market back in 2003, The era of social media has started.

Seeing the success of Facebook in the US, many Chinese companies started copying the feature of Facebook with many new social media app started appearing in the market. Tencent already have a platform to compete in this market through its Q Zone, a social platform for its QQ users.

Gaming Becomes the Crown Jewel

And Gaming turn out to be the key to build up Tencent social media presence. As Pony Ma was able to convince his team to start moving into the gaming industry, they started experimenting on how to expand into the industry. But it has struggled to find success in the competitive market. China was already home to successful gaming company at that time like Netease and Shenda.

Only until In 2008, Tencent really found a breakthrough by partnering with an external game developer called 5 Minutes. 5 Minutes developed a highly popular game, Happy Farm. A game where user can act as a farm owner and plant and build up your own farm. On top of that , you can also raid other players’ farm and steal their crops. Players can purchase additional upgrades to the farms as well. So it is a very simple social game that was highly addictive.

Tencent saw the potential of this game and approached 5 Minutes for a partnership. They will help distribute the game to their QZone users. They came to an agreement pretty fast. However, no one really foresee the huge growth that followed.

At the beginning, 5 Minute was still maintaining the game server while Tencent was doing the distribution. However, on the first day of launch on QZone, the amount of new users crashed the server. 5 Minutes have no choice but to pass over the technical maintenance to Tencent. Tencent has to work with 5 Minutes to improve the infrastructure of the game. Tencent ordered more than a thousand servers to boost up the system infrastructure to support the game.

This is the first time that Tencent saw a possible business model for its gaming department. By Aug 2009, Tencent bought out the distribution rights to the game, renamed Happy Farm to QQ Farm with its new version. By the end of the year, QZone reported that it has added a total of more than 70 million new users to the platform, mainly due to the popularity of the game. And integrating QCoin to be used within QQ Farm, games rapidly become a key revenue driver for the whole company.

The game was so popular that a small western startup game developer started copying it and introducing it on Facebook platform. The company is Zynga and This is the popular Farmville game that exploded in the rest of the world.

Tencent restructured the gaming division after seeing the strong growth happening within Qzone. They developed even more games and added social elements into Qzone such as allowing users to see what their friends are playing. And with a single click, users can join their friends into the game as well. This feature is still widely available now on Facebook and WeChat.

Even though Tencent was late to enter the gaming industry, due to its strong ecosystem in Qzone, it quickly became one of the largest gaming platforms in China. They also started copying aggressively the games of its competitors. It seriously spooked many of its competition, leading to lawsuits against the company as well.

Although the lawsuits ruled in favour of Tencent, it prompted the company to develop more of its own original games in the future.

Just as games become the main growth driver for the company starting in the year 2008, its main competitor, Shenda, which was the largest gaming company in China at that time, made a critical strategic mistake. Instead of focusing on competing in the gaming space, Shenda started diversifying its business into other areas of the internet like movies, music, media, online publishing. This spread the company too wide and was unable to compete successfully with Tencent.

In 2008, Tencent has a revenue of RMB 7.2 billion, with most of it coming from its social media and gaming services. By 2011, the year that WeChat is first release, that revenue is boosted to RMB28.5 billion Today, in 2018, Tencent makes RMB 312 billion a year and social media and gaming takes up more than 56% of that revenue at RMB176.6 billion in 2018. And it is still growing.

That was basically how the gaming division of Tencent got started and grew to what it is today.

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